When I was young, I read a lot of fiction and science fiction stories: The Colour of Outer Space, The Andromeda Strain, The Screwfly Solution and The Eyes of Darkness, just to name a few. Of course, I’ve also seen or read many of the zombie movies and books, as well as the reverse virus stories, such as War of the Worlds and Independence Day. It is from that background, combined with the knowledge, information and training from my professional background in homeland security, that I have I observed the evolution of the world-wide threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
From the early moments and days that the virus coalesced in my thoughts as a threat, I have said that it reads just like a science fiction novel. Think about it — some initial, very unspecific media reports in late December about a flu-like virus in China. Then, just as Wuhan, China was identified as ground zero for the virus, two Chinese scientists from Wuhan attempted to get word out to the world. Stories began to circulate about Chinese government’s reactions to the virus, innocuous at first and then becoming more desperate in tone. Then, the spread was documented in Thailand, then Japan, then Korea. And the death reports started coming in, followed by news of cruise ships loaded with infected or ill passengers, some stranded in ports and some at sea. It was literally the stuff of a Michael Crichton or Dean Koontz novel. But it was also a cause for alarm.
I have maintained contact with many friends and acquaintances from the Department of Homeland Security, and many are adjuncts for Medaille College. As we observed the situation and commented back and forth, it soon became obvious that there were basically two schools of thought on the issue. There were those who thought the threat was vastly overblown and that the timeline would not continue to reflect that of a disaster novel. On the other hand, there were those (including myself) who thought that we were not taking things seriously enough. You know how that worked out — on March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.
The timeline of events has since come to resemble a snowball rolling down hill; it is progressing faster and becoming too large to recount on a day-to-day basis. Fast forward to today. China, the European Union, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and many other countries have all restricted international travel. The stock market is in a freefall. New York State is curtailing operations. And yet, among my professional acquaintances, my personal friends and my family, and from anecdotal observation, I still see only two schools of thought.
The first school of thought is that we are making too much out of this — that there is not really a need for worry or concern. I see this in many younger people. They are cavalier in their attitudes, and they continue to socialize and carry on their normal, daily lives. They say, “It is only the flu,” or “The numbers really aren’t that alarming.” The other school of thought is reflected in the actions taken to date by the president, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and many other states. It is the concept known as social distancing, which is a voluntary reduction of both work and personal contacts. Both schools of thought are wrong.
Experts are urging that we need to “flatten the curve.” This means reducing the number of new infections to a point where the health system can cope and not become overloaded. The virus needs to be kept at bay until either the season passes or a vaccine is developed or both. Neither of the above listed schools of thought will accomplish this. The first is obviously wrong. Every single occurrence of the virus in other countries shows that it is extremely dangerous if left unabated. The second won’t work because it will become untenable. As life goes on with the populace voluntarily sheltered in place, people will become restless. Socializing will resume. Small and medium-sized businesses will slowly but surely return to business. The social distancing that we hoped to achieve will fail.
What will be needed is quarantine. The quarantines could be limited to specific, local areas based on local rates of infection, or it might even mean a nation-wide quarantine. In either case, the quarantines will not be voluntary. They will probably last for a week at first, but then be extended two to three additional weeks. The quarantines will be a total shut down, including a ban on domestic travel, and they will include curfews. Businesses will be shuttered, leaving only truly essential businesses open, like drug stores, banks and gas stations. (Why are gas stations essential if you have a total shut down?) Only through the use of quarantines will we be able to stem the growth of the virus enough that it will effectively “flatten the curve.”
Should you panic (and stock up on toilet paper, vodka and bullets)? No. But should you be worried? Yes, to an extent. Quarantine will mean that you are involuntarily confined to your home. You will not be able to travel, to go to the grocery store or drug store, or even go to your neighbor’s (if it is farther than you can walk) to socialize. So you should probably have at least two weeks’ worth of groceries on hand. Your prescriptions should be filled, or you should have at least enough to last several weeks or longer. You should have some cold and flu medicine, along with staples such as ibuprofen or Tylenol. You should probably fill your gas tanks (see above). And, in a nod to Mayor Griffin, you should probably buy a six pack of beer. The proper response to any emergency or disaster is actually proper prior planning. However, proper prior planning does not include hoarding or panic buying.
It is interesting to note that one of Medaille College’s bachelor’s degree courses in homeland security, Administering Homeland Security (HLS300E), has a final individual project that requires students to create a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) for the College in the event of a flu epidemic. The project posits a major flu epidemic that will close the College (and surrounding businesses) for six to eight weeks. Students are directed to consider such factors as the size and spread of the epidemic, the geographic location of the College, the time of year for the outbreak and the meteorological conditions at the time. They have to report on the first response by the College, the College’s responsibility to students, the students’ responsibilities, the predicted burden on local medical services, the predicted effect on the College staff and administration, the recovery of the College from the epidemic and the mitigation of its effects on the College. Academic world — meet the real world!
Having graded eight years of these projects, I can say that they are surprisingly accurate. Many of them, more or less, portray the actual actions taken by the College to date, albeit many of them take some of the actions a little sooner. However, you also have to remember that everything is more antiseptic in an academic project or an exercise like this. No plan ever goes smoothly in real life. But, in essence, we have eight years of students who have already lived through this. I think I’ll call some of them and see how things work out!
Dr. MacMartin is an Associate Professor of the Practice and director of the Medaille College Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in Homeland Security. In 2011, Dr. MacMartin retired as a Senior Special Agent/national program manager with the United States Department of Homeland Security and was employed by DHS and its predecessor agency, the United States Customs Service, for 31 years. During that time, he was assigned or deployed to numerous land border ports in the northeast and on the southern border. Read more…